Friday, March 24, 2006

Why don't Catholics sing?

He who sings, prays twice (St.Augustine)

I grew up in a Methodist family. Methodists sing hymns; they sing them loudly and well. Even as the reluctant young Methodist I was, the hymns of Charles Wesley and other greats sank into my soul. After ten years of non-Church-going, I finally admitted that I could no longer put off becoming a Catholic and attended my first ever Mass. I knew without a shadow of doubt that I had come home, but one thing puzzled me. Were the congregation supposed to be singing the hymns but just not doing it? Or were they not supposed to be singing, but couldn't resist humming along a little? In time I realised that yes, they were supposed to be singing. In fact, they even thought they were singing.

In the twenty years since there has been some improvement in Catholic hymn-singing volume, both in my original parish and elsewhere. I do my best to contribute, either through playing in a parish music group, acting an occasional organist, or just by singing enthusiastically in the hope that it might boost the confidence of those around me. For the last couple of months I simply haven't been able to sing. Along with all the coughing and puffing I've had recurring sore throats and my voice has gone. Disappeared totally. I open my mouth to sing and not so much as a squeak comes out ... which, to be honest, I find a disconcerting and depressing experience. Last Sunday I stood in enforced silence with an open hymn book and looked around at my fellow parishioners. Many also stood silently with open hymn books and closed mouths. Surely they can't all have lost their voices. Those who did open their mouths rarely opened them wide enough for anything audible to come out. I have been in Methodist congregations of ten who sing better than a Catholic congregation of one hundred. You never see Methodists with open hymnbooks and closed mouths. So ... why don't Catholics sing? Is this just an English Catholic thing?


CelticMom said...

Oh, your post made me laugh! I have the opposite complaint about the Catholic singing here in Arizona! Growing up, I went to Catholic school and attended mass regularly, and enjoyed the chanting/singing style with a couple of hymns thrown in for good measure. Now, all they do is sing, sing, sing! They sing EVERYTHING here, and it drives me bonkers! :) I've actually taken to attending weekday masses and ignoring the weekend masses, because during the week they don't add all the frills. I'm chuckling here, and assuming that it's an English Catholic thing, as it was the same in Michigan when we lived there. hee, hee!

Anonymous said...

When our priest leads we sing, when the music director sings guests turn and stare (we are used to her loud and off-key voice)when left to our own devices our congregation mumbles.


The Bookworm said...

Shari, that reminds me of a Methodist chapel where my great-uncle was the minister. The organist had one speed, and the choir had another. Both were determined not to concede to the other's tempo. The congregation either gave up in despair or simply did their own thing. So maybe all Methodists sing, but not all Methodists sing well!

Celticmom ... perhaps our parishes should do a congregation exchange. I'll send you some non-singers, and you can send us some singers in return ;-).

Anonymous said...

According to my Catholic friends, most of them professional musicians, the Notre Dame University choirs can't compare with those of the local, 900-student Mennonite college, because the Mennonites grew up from the cradle with four-part a capella singing. In fact, the largest, most upscale Mennonite church in town begins Sunday morning worship with half an hour of a capella singing.

We recently visited a Lutheran college famed for its choral music. When Beethoven's 9th Symphony was mentioned, the admissions counselor said they'd never do it with such young voices. We didn't have the heart to tell her that the previous month the Mennonite college choirs and orchestra and those of the local public high school (with a large Mennonite or Mennonite background student body) had given 2 performances of the last movement plus Orff's Carmina Burana in one day--and both were excellent. There were 200 or more kids singing and many of the high school kids sang one performance and played the other.

The Mennonites attribute the quality of their singing to the fact that they are still somewhat wary of musical instruments in church--unless people open their mouths and sing, there will be no music. Perhaps there's something to that; after all, "Silent Night" was written because an organ was broken.

elizabeth said...

you should read 'why catholics can't sing'. my memory's too bad to do it justice, but apart from reasons of history and culture (all that oppression and secrecy didn't really lend itself to loud and joyful singing), there are the modern impediments of one singer with a microphone giving the impression that it's not worth anyone else's while to try, and also the dire nature of both music and words in modern hymns...